Midtown: Community

Surviving, rebuilding and remembering to thank those who helped after tornadoes

No matter our past experience or present lot, not one of us has escaped the wonderment at how quickly life can change; how, in the proverbial blink of an eye, what was isn’t anymore, and what would have been can’t be.

Good or bad, we, thank God, survive. We adjust. We thrive. We remember not to forget.

For more than a thousand of our neighbors, one of those times was a year ago on Monday – April 16, 2011.

That Saturday, a deadly tornado devastated life as they knew it, ripping away homes and memories and lives. For three days, a total of 289 tornadoes were reported in 15 states. In North Carolina alone, twisters reportedly killed 24 people, including three children in a North Raleigh mobile home. It’s likely to rank the largest tornado outbreak in history.

Two Raleigh communities will mark the anniversary of the April 16 tornado with events that celebrate survival and renewal, and thank the people who helped them along the way. Shaw University will hold an open house starting at 11 a.m. Monday, on the heels of a block party a few miles away, between King Charles Road and Crabtree Boulevard.

“The first thing is to thank everyone: the countless volunteers, donors and public officials who committed so many hours and resources to helping us clean up and rebuild,” said Shaw spokeswoman Odessa Hines. “We would not have been able to reopen for the fall semester if it wasn’t for the Raleigh community pitching in and helping us.”

When the tornado vortex touched down in the center of the 146-year-old campus, Shaw was forced to close, ending its spring semester early – and in limbo, with no on-campus housing for summer school students.

About 26 buildings on campus were damaged, but none more extensively than the Willie E. Gary Student Center, a campus centerpiece where students eat, meet and greet, and unwind.

Damage was estimated at nearly $3.8 million, Hines said. Donations to Shaw totaled $318,000, FEMA contributed about $1.2 million, and insurance paid the rest.

Immediately, city officials including District C City Councilman Eugene Weeks stepped up. So did students from colleges across the Triangle: N.C. State, Peace, Meredith, N.C. Central and St. Augustine’s, which sustained its own damage. So did the Raleigh community, including listeners of Shaw’s radio station, who sent money to the school’s disaster relief fund.

“If there is a silver lining in this – of course, nobody would want to go through a tornado – it’s a show of the school’s resiliency and an outpouring of community support for Shaw University as the oldest HBCU in the south,” Hines said, noting the school’s own history of activism. “Because of our rich history, so many people love and support Shaw, and we’re absolutely thrilled to have that community support.”

The fruit of that community labor was evident when school started in August with little evidence of destruction and continued with the reopening of the first-floor cafeteria of the student center, ending six months of student dining in a make-shift cafeteria of trailers.

Monday’s open house will unveil more fruits of that labor, Hines said, as the school opens the remaining floors of the student center, including the student book store, the activity area and students’ hangout, the Bear Den.

Hines said the third reason for the open house is to assure the community, and current and future students, that Shaw is alive and ready. School leaders believe Shaw suffered a storm-related dip in enrollment, from 2,700 in fall 2010 to 2,400 in fall 2011.

“We have vitality,” Hines said. “We’re still here educating our students and providing a service to our community.”

Neighborhood rebounds

Nearby, Allison Miller spearheaded a block party in her King Charles Road community to thank the folks, including emergency personnel and her coworkers, who helped her and her neighbors when the tornado left them trapped amid the destruction of their homes, many later deemed uninhabitable.

Miller said last week that the Saturday block party also would encourage her neighbors to celebrate survival, remember those who were killed and “pay it forward” with donations to people in other states struck by tornadoes.

“We have definitely become a closer-knit community,” Miller said. “But it’s been one long year, and we haven’t had any fun, yet.”

Skip Kirkwood, chief of the Wake County EMS Division, said he couldn’t recall a time in his career when communities had held events to thank folks who responded to emergencies, but it was a nice gesture.

“The whole thing was a bit overwhelming for all of us, … but over the course of a year, the numbers of blue tarps have decreased, and the rubble piles are gone,” he said. “This is a great community we have, and it should be no surprise that neighborhoods and communities and extended family came together to mitigate the damage and the loss that people sustained.”

No, it’s not the kind of thing we expect when we help our neighbors, but it’s the kind of thing our neighbors remember not to forget.